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Top Scholarships for Aspiring IT Security Professionals


Interested in an IT security career? Here are a couple statistics that might interest you: a 2013 study by InformationWeek reports that the median salary for IT security professionals in the U.S. is $95,000.  And according to a February 2014 study by security research center The Ponemon Institute, up to 40 percent of IT security positions will be vacant in 2014.

“In the last 10 years, security has gone from a low-level technical topic to a boardroom topic at most major enterprises,” says Jacob West, CTO for enterprise security products at Hewlett-Packard (HP). “The university system, and the existing pools of professionals in the industry, simply can’t keep up with the increased demand.”

With so many potentially lucrative careers available, it’s clearly an excellent time to consider joining the fight against hackers and cyber criminals. To help you in this endeavor, there are numerous cybersecurity scholarships that can subsidize your tuition fees, guarantee you a job after graduation and even provide you with a free ride through college.

Here, we take a look at some of the major scholarships available to understand the eligibility requirements and benefits of each, and how applicants can maximize their chances of winning one.

The Scholarship for Women Studying Information Security 

The Scholarship for Women Studying Information Security (SWSIS) was started by the nonprofit cybersecurity organization Applied Computer Security Associates (ACSA) in 2012, and has since awarded scholarships to six women.

In February 2014, HP announced it will grant $250,000 to the program. “We found that our customers, which are primarily large enterprises, are having a hard time finding people with the right security skills to fill the positions they already have,” West explains.

“Today only one in five IT security professionals are women, so this is a great opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: to increase the representation of an otherwise underrepresented group in the field, and to address that shortage of qualified professionals.”

To qualify for the SWSIS, candidates must be in the last two years of an undergraduate program or the first two years of a master’s degree program with a focus on information security. Candidates must apply to the ACSA and provide a statement of interest in the field of information security, a transcript and a statement of their current educational status.

Students awarded the scholarship receive anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 per year—up to a maximum of $20,000 over a two year period. Recipients must reapply in the second year to show their continuing interest in IT security.

Although HP does not directly select the winning applicants, West says the firm is “keeping an eye” on the talent it supports, and there will be opportunities for recipients to intern in HP’s IT security products group.

When asked what traits can help a candidate stand out, SWSIS founder and program director Jeremy Epstein says, “In the past, we’ve looked for interest as exhibited not only by academic performance, but also by internships, memberships of clubs, etc.”

An applicant’s essay, he adds, shouldn’t focus on why cybersecurity is important, but on her interests and accomplishments, why she wants to study in the field and where she sees her future.

Epstein also says that scholars can come from any field within IT security and that the panels try to award the scholarship to women at both big-name schools (e.g. Columbia University) and lesser-known schools (e.g. Towson University in Baltimore).

To distinguish herself from other applicants, Andrea Mobley, one of the first recipients of the SWSIS scholarship, says she joined a “cyber defense team” where she competed against other school teams to secure networks against professional hackers. “I believe being a part of this club was what set me apart,” she says.

Mobley also credits the scholarship with making her aware of potential career paths in cybersecurity, as she had opportunities to speak with representatives from organizations such as IBM, Northrop Grumman and the National Science Foundation.

“Hearing about the different options opened up my ‘visors’ to what I was really studying,” she says. “I knew there was a huge job market for me, but speaking with these people from all kinds of areas—federal, commercial, contracting, consulting—really made me more aware of my options.”

The SWSIS website begins accepting applications on March 30, 2014, and all applications must be submitted by May 1, 2014. Scholarship winners are notified around July 1, 2014. For more information on how to apply, click here.

(ISC)² Scholarships

The International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium—more commonly known as (ISC)²—is a nonprofit organization specializing in IT security education programs and certification.

The body behind the globally recognized Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certification, (ISC)² has offered multiple security scholarships for the past decade. In 2014, the foundation is offering a total of $145,000 in scholarship money.

“Our scholarships are all designed to address the gap in the workforce and the need for more information security workers,” explains (ISC)² Foundation Director Julie Peeler.

(ISC)² Women’s Scholarship

Entering its fourth year, the (ISC)² women’s scholarship, like the SWSIS program, is intended to help more women enter the field. This scholarship is for a full years’ worth of tuition—up to $40,000—and is usually awarded to two individuals, though there were three recipients in 2013.

The scholarship is open to applicants all over the world and attracts fierce competition. Applicants must have completed at least the first year of an undergraduate degree program by August of the calendar year in which scholarship funding will begin. They must also have a GPA of at least a 3.2 on a 4.0 scale, or an analogous score if the applicant is studying outside the U.S.

Peeler says the selection panel has an international, “real business world” focus. “Our panels are made up of our members from around the globe who are hiring managers or have hiring responsibilities,” she says. “They know what their organizations are looking for in terms of a professional they’d want to bring into the field.”

Finally, not all unsuccessful candidates are cast aside—the foundation passes worthy candidates for consideration onto the two other panels that decide the recipients of (ISC)²’s graduate and undergraduate scholarships.

Undergraduate Scholarship

The undergraduate scholarship is given to 10-12 students per year and awards grants of up to $5,000 per recipient. Like the women’s scholarship, this scholarship requires a GPA of at least 3.2 on a 4.0 scale.

The scholarship can have a profound effect on recipients’ lives. “We hear repeatedly from these students that without that scholarship they would have had to drop out of school,” Peeler says.

“I had one scholar from India tell me that the first night she slept in her dorm room was the first night in her life that she’d slept in a bedroom that had an actual floor instead of a dirt floor.”

Graduate Scholarship

(ISC)² also provides graduate research scholarships, for which applicants must have a GPA of at least 3.5 on a 4.0 scale to qualify. Peeler describes this scholarship as “seed funding” for recipients’ information security research projects. It awards up to $3,000, which usually pays for equipment and computer lab time—though it can also have a broader application.

“Last year we had a scholar who lived in Tanzania who was studying via distance learning at a university in South Africa,” Peeler says. “She had to go to South Africa to defend her thesis, and part of her grant went to pay her travel costs.”

Harold F. Tipton Memorial Scholarship

(ISC)² also offers a scholarship named after the organization’s founder, Harold F. Tipton. It awards an additional $5,000 to the top recipient of the undergraduate scholarship, who must have a GPA of at least 3.5 on a 4.0 scale.

The main idea here, Peeler explains, is that the tuition fees of most undergraduate scholarship recipients will exceed the $5,000 the award provides them. “For the Tipton scholar, this additional money takes care of another big chunk of their tuition,” she says.

Cyber Warrior Scholarship

(ISC)² developed its Cyber Warrior Scholarship in partnership with management and technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. It targets individuals who are transitioning out of the military and trying to find employment in the private sector.

“It’s aimed at people who probably have IT experience but were not required to get one of our certifications while in the military,” Peeler says. “It provides additional training, study materials, mentoring and an (ISC)² exam voucher, which helps individuals to retrain, get additional training or upgrade their skills. We had one individual who received the scholarship that took his CISSP exam two weeks later. He passed it and was hired.”

Demand for the Cyber Warrior program is high. “Last year we gave out six scholarships, and the day after the application period ended we got 25 requests from people asking if they could submit their information,” Peeler says. “This year we’ll probably have ten to fourteen scholars in that program.”

The University of Phoenix 

(ISC)² also partners with the online University of Phoenix to provide nine full scholarships for undergraduate or graduate degrees. Each provides a free four year ride.

All (ISC)² scholarship recipients also receive a voucher for an (ISC)² certification exam, which usually cost in excess of $1,000 to take. Peelers says that passing one can lead to a sharp increase in an information security professional’s earning power.

“Globally, the annual average salary of members of the (ISC)² is $101,000, whereas the average salary of non-members is about $75,600. So that’s a 33 percent difference between the two,” she says.

An additional benefit of winning an (ISC)² scholarship is that recipients gain access to the (ISC)² member charters—a valuable list of contacts who Peeler says are often willing to share their experience with students and who look to the scholarship pool as a source of new talent.

Peeler says the selection panels look for both passion for the industry and merit, which includes extracurricular activities (particularly those related to cybersecurity) and financial need.

“We want to know why that person is a better candidate than others,” she says. “We look at applicants beyond just receiving a scholarship—we want to create long-term relationship where the student becomes a certified member of (ISC)².”

All (ISC)² scholarships are already accepting applications and will continue until midnight EDT on April 1, 2014. The exception is the University of Phoenix scholarship, which accepts applications March 25 through June 3, 2014. Click here for more information.

U.S. Government Scholarships

The U.S. government also funds two major scholarship programs in the field. There are two key caveats, however:

  • Recipients must be U.S. citizens, and;
  • Recipients must work for the U.S. government after graduation.

These government scholarships are offered at over 100 universities in 38 states that have been defined by the National Security Agency (NSA) as “Centers of Academic Excellence” (click here to see an interactive map of participating universities).

One such university is the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), which The Ponemon Institute ranked as having the number one cybersecurity program in the U.S. in 2014. We spoke to Glenn Dietrich, PhD, CISSP, professor and director of The Center for Education and Research in Information and Infrastructure Security at UTSA to learn more about these scholarships.

Information Assurance Scholarship Program (IASP)

The IASP is offered by the Department of Defense, and is awarded to 50-60 scholars per year.  Eligible applicants must be within two years of graduation at any level (bachelor’s, master’s or Ph.D) and must have a GPA of at least 3.2 on a 4.0 scale. Award recipients must serve one year in the Department of Defense (DoD) for each year they receive the scholarship.

The IASP covers all tuition fees and also provides $625 per semester for books. It also provides an additional stipend, which varies from $16,000-$18,000 per year for undergraduates and $22,000 for graduates. “It’s a very attractive package,” Dietrich says.“It’s essentially a free ride in school.”

Universities participating in the IASP collect student applications and send them to the National Security Agency (NSA). The NSA then sends these applications out to DoD agencies that are looking for college graduates, and the agencies choose which students receive the scholarship.

“These agencies select students so they’re guaranteed a job when they graduate,” Dietrich explains. “The security clearance and background investigation starts while the student is still in school. This takes about a year to complete, so by the time they graduate they’re cleared and able to work, which is essential.”

National Science Foundation Scholarship for Service (SFS)

The SFS, which is run by the National Science Foundation, pays all tuition fees, provides a stipend of $22,000 and even allocates extra money towards books and up to $2,000 for medical expenses. Like the IASP, this scholarship requires applicants to be within two years of graduation, at the bachelor’s, master’s or PhD level.

Recipients are required to work for the federal government after graduation, though not necessarily for the DoD. “It could be the Department of Justice, the Department of Energy—it just has to be in a security role,” Dietrich says.

Applicants can come from many academic disciplines. “They can have any major—business, computer science, engineering, really anything that’s security connected,” Dietrich says. While English Literature might be a stretch, somebody studying Russian or Arabic could apply because of the demand for people who speak these languages in the field of intelligence analysis.

Unlike the IASP, it’s up to the participating universities to determine who qualifies for a SFS scholarship. The number of recipients varies from school to school each year, although Dietrich points out that the overall budget is $25 million, so the program’s reach is significant.

Government Scholarships Provide Career Opportunities

According to Dietrich, many scholarship recipients are able to turn their mandatory years of government service into a lucrative career in government contracting. “If [recipients] have two years of experience with an agency like the NSA, they’re in big demand from government contractors, which pay more than the government,” he says.

“I was at a conference recently and a senior figure at the Department of Homeland Security said 300,000 cybersecurity workers were needed in government. UTSA has one of the larger programs in the country and we only graduate between 80 and 120 people per year—that’s a long way from 300,000. That’s why contractors are paying a starting salary of $75,000 for 22-year-olds with no experience.”

The Takeaway

Any of these of these scholarships can improve your ability to launch a successful career in IT security. But when all is said and done, West says, the individuals most likely to benefit from these awards must not only show technical aptitude, but care deeply about the field and have a unique learning approach.

“[IT security] is the kind of field that requires a little bit of passion,” he says. “The people who have that passion, and who have a love of understanding the adversarial learning model—by which I mean the idea of breaking things, or understanding how they’re broken—those are the people who end up being most successful.”

Graduation Happiness created by Kyle James used under CC 3.0 cropped/resized.

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Daniel Humphries

About the Author

Daniel Humphries is the Managing Editor of IT Security at Software Advice. He interviews experts, writes articles and conducts behind-the-scenes research into the rapidly changing cyber security landscape, all with the goal of bringing clarity to the bewildering assortment of IT security buzzwords and technologies.

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